Our anguish when a loved one dies is a sacred thing


Leviticus 21:1–24:23

Ezekiel 44:15-31

When we lose someone, it seems as if everyone should be able to see it written on our bodies, imprinted on our bodies, imprinted on our souls in a way that all should immediately recognize. In fact, one of the tougher parts of surviving a loss is the inevitability of going back to the familiar daily routine.

Slipping back into life — “moving on” — can feel like a betrayal of the person we lost, or instill a fear that we may forget that loved one for even a moment.

In this portion of Torah, we gain insight into one of Judaism’s most visible mourning rituals. Leviticus 21:5 reads, “They shall not make bald spots upon their heads … or make gashes in their flesh.”

Earlier in Leviticus we read that “you shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves” (Lev. 19:28). Like many of our commandments, we are warned against observing the rituals of the surrounding nations.

In many ancient Near Eastern religious systems, when someone died, the mourners would make actual gashes in their own flesh or pull out their own hair and include it in the burial as an offering to the dead. However violent, the rationale behind the practice may have been that inflicting pain on oneself would be cathartic, symbolizing the grief of the mourner.

A part of us dies when someone we love is gone, so offering of oneself may have seemed the natural way to express that. The mark would stand as a sign of the pain and signal to everyone that someone, something had been lost.

In Jewish thought, our bodies are merely on loan to us, so they are not ours to harm. When we hear of a death, we observe a far less dramatic yet still powerful rite: keriah, the ripping of our clothing.

Examples of this custom abound in our texts: When Jacob saw Joseph’s many-colored coat drenched with what he thought was his blood, he tore his garment. Job, too, “rent” (tore) his mantle. And even God, according to the Zohar, performed keriah; When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, God rent the royal curtain that protected the ark in an act of mourning.

Perhaps ripping one’s clothes aims to fulfill that desire to inflict pain on oneself at the moment that horrible news is heard. Plus, we wear that garment all week long during shiva, sparing the mourner from telling people what has happened, for it is written on their clothing.

Maimonides wrote in Torah Temimah that “this tear satisfies the emotional need of the moment, or else it would not be permitted as it is a clear violation of the biblical command not to cause waste.” If the role of the mourning process is to help the one who has lost someone confront, express and eventually process the anger and pain that arise around death, then keriah is the first step. We rip the garment we’re wearing to show the world what we look like inside.

However, our ritual has undergone some changes over the centuries, as have most of our sacred customs. Keriah is often done not at that bitter moment when the news is relayed, but before the funeral. And most of us no longer rip our clothes. Usually a small button is pinned on us with a ribbon attached that we rip instead.

Do we still tap into the psychological value that Jacob and Job felt when they disregarded their material possessions for a moment? Or maybe we have lost something of the original intent.

I have personally found great power in even the ripping of the ribbon — the sound of the tear piercing the mournful silence. But I wonder if we spare our clothes at a time when that is truly the last thing on our minds.

Judaism acknowledges that being with grief is an intricate, ongoing process. With each stage comes its own rituals, reflecting the mourner’s psychological needs.

Keriah is only the first of many rites and milestones that accompany us on the journey through loss. When we lose a loved one, as writer Rabbi Maurice Lamm writes, “the anguish is exquisite and, one might even say, sacred, and the way in which we express it should be no less sacred.”

Rabbi Mychal Copeland
is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."